Wednesday, September 19, 2007

September 19

GilecoryDetermined to extract a confession of witchcraft from Giles Corey, the magistrates of Salem, Massachusetts turned to an "alternate set of procedures" -- to use a more contemporary phrase -- when the 80-year-old farmer held his tongue, vowing neither to deny nor to confirm the charges that had been leveled against him five months previous, in mid-April 1692.

On September 17, one man and eight women -- including Corey's third wife Martha -- had been condemned to die for colluding with the devil. Among other absurdities, Martha Corey was accused of "having familiarity with the Devil . . in the shape of a black man whispering in her ear" and of "afflicting" several young girls of Salem with bite marks and scratches, each of which the girls helpfully displayed to the assembled magistrates during the trial. Giles Corey, recognizing the accusations as a community hallucination, refused to join his wife in attempting to refute the charges against them.

By virtue of English common law, Corey could not be tried unless he entered a formal plea before a judge; by virtue of that same common law, a defendant who "stood mute" in this fashion could be subjected to peine forte et dure -- a "long and forceful punishment" that involved heavy weights being pressed upon the accused until he or she at last surrendered a plea. Three hundred and fourteen years ago today, Giles Corey was stripped and placed between two boards, after which heavy rocks were gradually placed atop Corey's feeble body. As the eyewitness Robert Calef recorded in More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), "In pressing[,] [Corey's] tongue being forced out of his mouth, the Sheriff with his Cane forced it in again, when he was dying. He was the first in New England that was ever prest to death."

According to legend, Corey's last words consisted of a simple request for "more weight."

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